Powerful Impressions, Stitch by Stitch

Quilting has traditionally been a woman's art in Western society. But New York artist Michael A. Cummings is changing all that. Mr. Cummings sews right in his home, an 1886 house in Manhattan, and stitches at a sewing machine in his drawing room under chandelier light. With a pair of scissors, he cuts yards of fabrics for images that depict stories of his life experience and his African-American heritage. Then he appliques them onto cloth backgrounds along with common objects like buttons, beads, shells, and sequins.

Originally, Cummings came from Los Angeles. He draws his inspiration from Africa, American folk art, and the great quilters of the South. His vibrant quilts have been hailed as works of art and a way to retell social history through folk tradition.

This month he fills the walls of the Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, Maine, with bright, bold stitcheries that tell powerful stories of his culture and the diversity of his times in ways only a collage of objects and textures can do. The exhibition "Narrative Quilts" runs through March 20.

The artist's selection of vivid visual images and fabrics works to convey his strong personal narratives. "Kitty and the Fireflies in the Bush, No. 11" (at right), for example, features a group of "characters" who help explain his story of being in Central Park for the first time. A wide band of floral upholstery is appliqued across his fabric canvas along with a green-beaded lizard, a dusty pink cat with a ragged tail, and fringed flickers of gold (a swarm of fireflies, of course). The quilt is composed variously of African prints, hand-dyed fabrics, glitter, and beads. A tribal mask peers out from under the cat. The contrast of colors, prints, and textures makes for an exciting display of reality in this provocative wall hanging. But are we sure we're in New York? What's the story?

The artist replies: "On one of my first visits to Central Park with friends, I had my first close-up encounter with fireflies. It was magical, the blinking lights all around. This impression has never faded from my memory. In my composition ... I tried to bring together all my impressions of park life forms. I also wanted to extend the definition of park to an untamed African landscape of wild animals, tribal hunters, and flashes of light."

In fact, Cumming's African heritage is very much a part of all his narratives, whether he is depicting a jazz concert or Haitian boat people. African symbols and fabrics are woven throughout depictions of his personal experience as an African-American.

Although he was trained as a painter, he clearly prefers using textures to "speak" for him. A single quilt may be appliqued in paisley, burlap, batik, upholstery, satin, velvet, and metallics to convey his story.

FOR example, in "Grandma's Porch," a composition in memory of his grandmother, his customary cut-out shapes are in a variety of homey fabrics like seersucker, calico, and corduroy. The subject's realism is conveyed and personalized by stitching his grandmother's housecoat across the center of the quilt. Her real housecoat! Grandma also had lace curtains. The artist suggests her watchfulness by stitching a lace panel to the background and slipping a face behind it. A rough brown knit porch railing provides a contrast to the soft cotton print in the housecoat. The coat's snaps give the composition even more realism.

Of course, we also know Grandma was a gardener by the cheerful pot of flowers in a peach floral print. And who could not notice the bright California sun stitched in glorious gold lam over the top of Grandma's porch?

Quilts in the old tradition tell the stories of our lives. Michael Cummings enlivens the quilting tradition, giving storytelling an even more powerful visual permanence. The exhibit at Bates College is a fine representation of the artist's diversity. It holds 14 quilts from his various collections. Admission is free.

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